HUGE Response to Our Post on Names Across Cultures

Name ChangesOur first blog post on Names Across Cultures hit powerfully and emotionally for so many of you! A few typical comments include:

“Names are part of a person’s identity. If people ‘get it’ across cultures we often feel they ‘get’ us, too.”

“We can’t know all languages or accents or tones, now could we? Having said this I would consider it wrong to be forced to change a name because someone can’t pronounce it—are you kidding? Why should the weakness or inability of one (the name changer) be even acceptable?!”

“My name is a point of pride for me. Even though nearly nothing about me screams ‘I’m a Korean immigrant,’ my name tells a very interesting story about who I am. I suppose my life would be marginally easier and I’ve probably gotten looked over for a handful of jobs because of the ‘foreignness’ of my name, but I like it. It’s unique and it’s me.”

“Changing people’s names was another turn of the screw in the arsenal of tricks that the colonial powers used to subjugate people under their dominion.”

We very much enjoyed reading the stories and comments posted here on the blog as well as in the social media. Thank you! We found them quite insightful, and believe you will, too. We heard from people who:
  1. Feel they are avoided at parties and gatherings because others find their names hard to pronounce. “People are embarrassed to mispronounce my name, so they sometimes avoid me altogether.” Talk about insidious discrimination!
  2. Have had others correct their pronunciation of their own name! “Such arrogance! How dare they! Do they even look at signatures on emails? They invariably correct me!” Sadly, this wasn’t just one person sharing this experience with us.
  3. Have been told their name is “wrong,” because it’s a man’s name not a lady’s, or because its origins are in a certain language and this is how it SHOULD be pronounced.
  4. Express the opposite opinion: “Many of us actually mispronounce our own name without knowing it. People who live in countries with a long history of immigrants and their intermarriage, will in due time pronounce a name according to what their ‘new’ language has taught them. Is this now wrong? Well, maybe to some degree yes, but since the new pronunciation is not something done out of maliciousness but rather due to having been told of it wrong.”
  5. Proclaim, “Those of us with unusual names need to stand our ground!”
    1. “I am waiting for the day I can go back to my roots and not cringe every time someone speaks to me!”
    2. “I prefer to have people change my name than butcher (by mispronouncing) my name!”
  6. Advise, “Forget my last name; use my first!” (or vice-versa) for ease in pronunciation.
  7. Are happy to have a different name for the varied contexts in which they live and work.
    1. “If someone calls me Karinka, or makes up another name that is easier for them, or pronounces my name incorrectly, I do not mind at all. I myself am certainly not in a position to pronounce everybody’s names properly, and I know how difficult it can be.”
    2. “It is all relative. When people ask me ‘What is your name?’ I say ‘Marianne.” The spelling stays the same but I pronounce it differently: Marianne (pronounced the German way), Mary Ann (the English way) or Ma Li An (pronounced the Chinese way). Personally I like to make people comfortable in my presence and have no preference how people pronounce my name.”
    3. “My name is Robert. I call myself Rob. In Egypt I’m Mr. Rob, in Finland I am Roope, in China I’m Lobert’t, and in Japan I’m Lobba. I answer to them all, and I’m comfortable with them all. But, then again, I am an intercultural trainer.”
    4. “I had a friend in China and was trying really hard to pronounce his name in Chinese, except he got mad at me. He wanted to be called by his self-assigned English name, and considered it rude that I was even trying to pronounce his name in Chinese.”
  8. Find the whole thing amusing, and leverage the pronunciation difficulties as a method to build relationship and understanding: “I really don’t mind you butchering my name. I understand: Höferle is hard to say if you are unfamiliar with the German language. Changing my last name’s spelling to the English keyboard-friendly Hoeferle also hasn’t helped. It made for funny moments, though. Something sounding awfully close to ‘hopefully’ or ‘hofferly’ has been the usual outcome in recent years. No matter how often I tell people to just forget about saying my last name and instead stick with Christian, they still try to get it right. Which is a really nice gesture, I think.” Bravo! Christian even, most kindly, sent us a link to his blog post on names and a link to learn more about pronouncing names with umlauts.
  9. Comment, “My last name has been spelled, Simons, Simmons, Simms, Symonds, Simonis, Simon, Simone—sometimes two or more versions in the same document. I find this more annoying than mispronunciation, which I am used to and expect, given that I am widely traveled and have lived in a number of countries, and realize that different language speakers use their own preferences for how the vowels sound. Misspelling can make authentication of documents difficult. Sometimes my family name is taken as a first name in documents and George(s) becomes my last name.”
  10. Share with us, “US immigration officers in the 19th and early 20th centuries were not beyond renaming immigrants on the spot, crossing out ‘Walentinowicz’ and writing in ‘Walters.’ 

Catholic Baptisms were conducted in Latin years ago, and it was required that a Saint’s name be given a child. There is no St. Nancy, so my cousin was named Venantia Fortunata (which I never let her forget).”
  11. “Dutch speakers use their digraph ij pronunciation which is the wrong pronunciation for my surname, as the languages are not even remotely related. Ironically, English language has roots in Anglo Frisian, yet native English speakers seem to have more difficulty with pronouncing my surname than just about any other heritage speaker. I can understand difficulties arising from having no equivalent sounds in other languages, but can not fathom where anyone gets the additional consonants…”
  12. And the humorous, “I once dated a guy who couldn’t pronounce my name properly, even though his former girlfriend of seven years was also called Kaisa. No need to say it didn’t last long…”

Readers very much enjoyed the quiz we put together, and shared with us another name to add to it: by what far more famous name was Margaretha Geertruida Zelle known? (answer at the bottom *)

There was obviously a broad range of responses from one imaginable end of a continuum to another—just begging for someone to conduct research into naming and our responses to name changes, spelling and pronunciation across cultures.

How do the use, pronunciation and spelling of names affect international organizations? Readers expressed:
  1. A lot of resentment around computer systems not having non-“standard” letters, because it means that people’s names often show up with strange characters in them, rather than being spelled correctly (“Brünnemann” not “Brünnemann”). “I do wonder when big, supposedly ‘international’ organisations or institutes do not even have their software in a position to spell international names,” said one of our community members. We know first-hand. It seems every other week one of our web pages has spontaneously changed to show strange rather than correct characters in one of our author’s names!
  2. “Dear marketers and copywriters: Inserting umlauts into your American brand names, logos or slogans may help you create some awareness. But it will also let you look really ignorant of other languages and cultures.”
  3. “I do have a problem when, for example, I read in a Peruvian paper, ‘Principe Carlos,’ where both the word ‘Prince’ and ‘Charles’ were translated into Spanish. It would have been OK if it were only Principe Charles. Why did they not stop there? Why not call Michael Jackson ‘Miguel HijoDeJacobo’? I know the reason behind it, btw, nevertheless I find it amusing.”
  4. “It’s so unfortunate when people and institutions feel they need to change the spelling of my name. Went to vote today in the NYC primaries and somehow my name got automatically changed to Bo Y. Kang. I have never written my name like that and I’m super duper conscious of getting the whole Bo Young part right under the section that says First Name so that they realize that’s my first name. I always leave the Middle initial section completely blank. Other ways my name gets written even after I’ve spelled it correctly:
    1. The magical hyphen: Bo-Young Kang
    2. The other magical hyphen: Bo Young-Kang
    3. The switcharoo: Bo Kang Young (and all its variations Kang Bo Young, Young Bo Kang, Kang Young Bo, Young Kang Bo)
    4. The disappearing game: Bo Kang
    5. The other disappearing game: Bo Young (this one I don’t mind so much because it’s technically correct, just missing a part)
    6. The condenser: Boyoung Kang
    7. The other condenser: Bo Youngkang
    8. And those are just the ones that include all the right letters. You don’t even want to get me started on the Bow, Boo, Booh, Yung, Ying, Yong, Kan, Li, Rhee variations I get all the time. 
    9. My name isn’t that hard. It’s spelled exactly like it sounds.”
Strategies for dealing with difficult-to-pronounce names that our readers shared with us included:
  1. Rhymes and mnemonics you’ve made up to help people learn to pronounce your name: “

Over the decades I’ve created stories to help people pronounce my name—’Think of going to the MALL. After a long day of shopping, you need a cup UH TEA. 

One year ago, someone blithely said, ‘Oh, your name rhymes with ‘Quality.’ 

Now when I meet someone, I introduce myself cheerfully: ‘Hi, my name is Malati. It rhymes with ‘Quality.’ This immediately releases the tension. 

’Rhymes with Quality’ is on my email signature, business cards, nearly anywhere my name appears!”
  2. “An interesting way to learn about a new acquaintance can be to ask the meaning and origin of the person’s name. Every nation has a trend of calling up by some peculiar name which helps a lot for better communication and understanding.”
  3. “Years back while in Nigeria the head of the Media Department there was Igbo. One time I listened carefully and repeated his family name again and again and could never get it right—though it did sound the same to my year (and herein lies an importance to note) I could not do so. Time passed, making myself more familiar to the language so I tried again, and once more I could not achieve it. More time passed with the same negative results. He would smile at me every time I pronounced his last name, knowing I had it wrong but was at least genuinely trying. He was also nice enough to let me know I was the one who came closest to it and that no one before or after me ever tried so hard. Just so you know, the Igbo language is one of the few languages that actually has sounds going in (like inhaling) when speaking.”
  4. “I actually take great pains myself to repeat until I have someone’s name correct if it is ‘foreign’ to me … surely this is a minimum sign of respect!!!”
  5. “Your link to is a terrific resource, and I recommend all in this community adopt its use. If your name is not hard to pronounce, you can use your 30-second audio-byte to talk about the origins of your name. It will encourage others to use this and help make our world more pronounceable and accommodating.”

The common theme, however, is BE CAREFUL WITH NAMES. Ask! Show respect. Discuss and don’t assume. And definitely avoid changing someone’s name without their permission; it’s a rare person who loves a nickname or name change that has been “assigned” or “imposed.”

I have one more video clip to share with you, from my interview with Dr. Emmanuel Ngomsi. In this short clip, he tells us how names are traditionally given in his home, Cameroon.

A common characteristic of many cultures around the world is the importance placed on naming a child. Factors that may be considered might include gender, birth order, astrological factors, family tradition, naming the child after a parent or beloved relative, date of birth, or characteristics valued in the birth culture or family and with which those naming the child want to imbue the newborn, among a wide variety of others. In some traditions family members do not share a family name. Do the parents choose a child’s name? Do the grandparents? Is there some ceremony in which the child chooses his/her own name? Does the state dictate selection from an official list of acceptable names, as has been the case in Iceland?

Here’s the video:

* Answer: Mata Hari

Please do share with us your further reactions, experiences, stories and advice. It is obviously a topic that merits some study as well as some training.

See Part 1 of this interview.

My Global Life Link-Up

9 thoughts on “HUGE Response to Our Post on Names Across Cultures

  1. Pingback: Names Across Cultures (First in a Series of Video Interviews with Authors!) | Cultural Detective Blog

  2. A simple but excellent point, well made. When I lived in Kuwait I knew I’d become one of the team in the local company I worked in when Mr. David became Dawood – sometimes being named after a biblical prophet has its uses.

    The attached clip is both very funny and a reminder to westerners of what it feels like to be on the other end of having a “funny name”.

    It comes from a British TV comedy sketch series of the late 80’s – “Goodness Gracious Me” – in which the cast were almost entirely British Asians (or “Hounslow Punjabis, to be precise” as one of the cast once said) and the running gags were all about the Asian migrant experience. It was hugely popular.



  3. Pingback: Terrific Video Clip on “Funny” Names Across Cultures | Cultural Detective Blog

  4. Pingback: How Language Can Deceive | Cultural Detective Blog

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